Scientists to Talk about Physics, not Politics, of Climate

Duke scientists have helped to build a new community of physicists to analyze climate science, not policy.

Duke physicist Bob Behringer studies how granular particles flow, but is also helping scientists to talk about the physics of climate. Credit: Cristin Paul, Duke.

Duke physicists Robert Behringer and Warren Warren are not climate scientists. Their research is not directly linked to climate or to its physics. But over the past few years, the two researchers have become key players in an experiment that will soon test scientists' ability to be objective when talking about climate and humans' possible effects on it.

The experiment will take place in March at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Baltimore in the form of scientific presentations, which Behringer and Penn State engineer James Brasseur will moderate. The goal of the talks and resulting discussion is that presenters and audience members "analyze climate science in a way that is completely divorced from political and societal points of view," Behringer said.

The meeting session is the product of the society's recently developed topical group on the physics of climate and is the first public forum for APS members to discuss climate research in that context. It will test the ability of the society's physicists to talk about climate science without influence from their political biases and personal beliefs. If successful, the structure of the talks could provide a foundation for more research societies to address the scientific uncertainties of climate research.

"While the research of Warren and Bob is not directly related to climate, they are outstanding scientists with broad interests and rich experience," said Haiyan Gao, who is currently chair of Duke's physics department and serves on the APS Executive Board. "They can be completely objective when critiquing the physics and analyzing any issues in a careful, scientific way."

The APS began to design the topical group on the physics of climate in response to the society's controversial 2007 statement on climate change. In the report, the society stated, "The evidence is incontrovertible. Global warming is occurring." That claim of incontrovertibility launched a storm of criticism among physicists because scientists rarely use the word incontrovertible, and the nature of science is to question mainstream ideas, Behringer said.

"Global warming is clearly established, but the APS took too much of a political or 'Al Gore' stance, which made scientists question the statement and made one Nobel prize winner and several other prominent scientists drop their membership to the society," he added. "And, there is a continuing debate on the contributions to global warming caused by humans versus those that would occur without human influence."

The APS, having about 50,000 members at the time, lost several hundred physicists and faced criticism in editorials in the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets in response to the statement. The society wrote a clarifying statement explaining the original stance, noting that the word incontrovertible was not one typically used in science. The new explanation, however, did little to assuage some scientists' fears that the society was becoming more politicized than its charter allowed.

 Warren Warren, Duke.
Duke chemist Warren Warren helped develop the APS topical group on the physics of climate. Image courtesy of: Warren Warren, Duke.

At the time, Warren was an officer in the APS Division of Laser Science, which he later chaired, and heard arguments from both advocates of strong action to reduce future climate change and scientists skeptical of the current evidence and models. "I felt there was inappropriate behavior happening on both sides, and that both needed to be called out," he said, explaining that the bitter debates led him to speak with the APS president at the time about what the society planned to do in response to both the controversy and the poor behavior of some of the scientists.

It was at that time that physicists who stayed with the APS through the controversy began to brainstorm ways to depoliticize climate science and to talk about the physics of climate without getting into policy and politics. Two petitions emerged to address the issues, which a few interested APS members including Warren,  organized into what has now become the APS topical group on the physics of climate.

"It's difficult to walk an honest line and do only science when the research in the community and our society is so contentious," Behringer said, explaining that the APS topical group does not want to remove debate from the scientific forum. Instead, the goal is to focus on investigations using the scientific method and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, just as scientists would do in any other field.

Both Behringer and Warren said they are part of the group and helped organize the discussions because they feel they have a "vested human interest" in understanding what scientists do and do not know about the climate. "Environmental issues are so much of the discussion at Duke and elsewhere. Lots of people are involved in research and work related to the environment, and this group is a good one that not a lot of people know about yet," Behringer said. 

The group has about 1,000 members, many of whom are not climate scientists. APS is one of the first scientific societies to develop this type of unit geared toward discussing climate science. If the experiment at the APS meeting is successful, without the talks degrading into heated political arguments, the society's leadership in this area could be "very constructive" for encouraging other organizations, such as the American Chemical Society and SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, to discuss climate science. 

These other organizations typically do not talk about climate science because of the political charge it carries, Warren said. But if the APS model holds up, scientists from many different disciplines could have a new framework to get together to discuss climate research scientifically -- not politically -- the way the process should work in all other fields of the science and how it should work in the climate field too, Behringer said.